Benefits and Compensation

Performance Appraisals—10 Most Common Sins

Sin #1. Failure to set meaningful goals

“Well, Sandy, I think we did fairly well this year, eh?”
“Tracy, I was sort of hoping you’d make more progress this year.”

Evaluation is difficult when there aren’t clear, measurable goals. Many experts recommend the S-M-A-R-T approach to setting goals. That means goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time bound

Sin #2. Failure to manage goals through the evaluation period

“So, Sally, another year, another appraisal. Let’s see how we did. Hmmm. Goal 1 was abandoned when corporate changed directions. Goal 2 got taken over by marketing, Goal 3 was unnecessary with the new software, Goal 4 got pushed over into next year, and Goal 5 depended on goal 4.”

Things can change during the evaluation period, and if you don’t address the changes, you may wind up at the end of the period with a set of great goals that are no longer relevant. This commonly happens when equipment or technology makes a job obsolete, the company abandons a project, or new priorities are set.

Especially if the evaluation period is a year, it’s important to review the goals and status against them at least every quarter. If most or many of the original goals are no longer relevant, restate or create some new ones.


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Sin #3. Failure to discuss performance at various times during the evaluation period.

“I know this may come as a surprise, but, unfortunately, your rating is ‘unsatisfactory.’”

A performance ranking shouldn’t be a surprise or a shock to the employee being appraised. Measure progress against goal regularly. If performance is unsatisfactory, give the employee a chance to improve. It’s pretty silly to let an employee underperform for a whole year and then spring the news at the appraisal meeting.

Sin #4. Failure to be honest

“Alex, your rating for this period is ‘satisfactory.’” (The manager says, thinking “Actually, Alex’s performance was worse than poor, but I think giving this rating will help it to improve.”)
“Good work this period, Patricia.” (The manager says, thinking, “It wasn’t anywhere near good, but if I tell her so, she’ll quit and I’ll lose the headcount”)
“Your work was OK this period.” (The manager says, thinking, “I think he knows that ‘OK’ means ‘terrible.’”)

Managers and supervisors tend to avoid unpleasant confrontations and they don’t want to have to tell an employee that he or she is subpar. So they equivocate and give a “‘satisfactory” rating to a “poor” employee. This sends the wrong message to the employee—who will surely assume that all is well—and can come back with a vengeance in court. Eventually, you’re going to terminate that employee. He or she will claim that the termination was because of discrimination, but you will say, “No, no, it was because of poor performance.” And then the opposing attorney will pull out that “satisfactory” performance rating and ask you, “Is this your signature?” and then the attorney will ask you to read the definition of “satisfactory.” You’re done for.

By the way, it’s easier to deliver bad news when there are clear standards; if they are not met, just say so; the facts will speak for themselves.
Finally, don’t think that any employee is going to think that “OK” means other than “good” or “excellent.”

Sin #5. Statements too vague

“Rafael, your work could use improvement.”
“Let’s tighten things up, shall we?”
“I’m making a note here that we talked about your performance.”
“Jay, I’m going to just spell it out—you’re lazy.”

Again, because of the desire to avoid unpleasantness, managers and supervisors will often write something on performance evaluations like “needs improvement.” That’s too vague—Does it mean the employee did a great job, but there’s always room for a little improvement, or does it mean that the employee did a terrible job?

Or how about a note to file: “Talked to Sally about her performance.” (Was that to tell her how exceptional her performance was?)
And then we have judgment words like “lazy.” Again, too vague. Offer documentation and give specific examples of the unacceptable behavior.


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Sin #6. For corrective situations, failure to clarify that “significant” and “sustained” improvement is required

“Paul, we need to see improvement or there will be repercussions.”
“If your work doesn’t improve, I can’t predict what will happen next.”

So, the new year begins and the worker does improve—a little—and only for a short time. But he or she did improve, just as asked. Make sure that whenever you ask for improvement you define what that would consist of, and that it must be sustained.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, the rest of the sins, plus we announce a timely June 10 webinar, How to Avoid Emerging Wage and Hour Risks.